Some of the same Atlanta teens who met civil rights icon John Lewis and read his books as middle school students carried lessons from the late Georgia congressman and voting rights advocate to the polls this year, voting for the first time in the 2020 elections.
They’ve remained riveted as the results trickle in and as they’ve learned that, pending a recount, their state could be on track to support a Democrat in the presidential race for the first time since 1992. In addition, two tight U.S. Senate races will go to runoffs, putting Peachtree State voters in the rare position of deciding which party will control the upper chamber.
“They are super excited,” Janean Lewis, social studies coordinator for Atlanta Public Schools, said of the teens in her district. “Just the energy around watching the news every day and having them focus on Fulton County and Clayton County. … We say every vote counts. It really rung true in this past election.”
During an election with unprecedented overall turnout, early data show a surge in youth voter participation nationwide, offering lessons for educators about civics and student engagement, political scientists said.
The big lesson for schools: Encouraging voting is a long-term exercise, and it has a long-term payoff. For students, learning about the electoral process can build a sense of social awareness and self-efficacy, even before they are old enough to vote.
U.S. public education is rooted in the belief by early American leaders that the most important knowledge to impart to young people is what it means to be a citizen. If America is experiencing a civic crisis now, as many say it is, schools may well be failing at that job.
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There is perhaps no other state that shows that more than Georgia, where voters ages 18 to 29 cast about 21 percent of the total vote, building on several election cycles of increasing participation rates. That’s according to an early analysis from the Center for Information on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, also known as CIRCLE. The turnout puts youth participation rates there higher than any of the 13 states the organization has tracked so far using data from Edison Research.
“If you look at Georgia’s turnout rates, you do see that youth turnout is historically high,” said Tiffany Pham, a Clayton County high school junior who helped organize voter registration efforts during the general election and plans to continue in advance of the runoff. “That just speaks volumes to how successful we’ve been in our work.”
Nationwide, about 50 percent to 52 percent of eligible 18- to 29-year-olds voted in the 2020 election, compared to 42 percent to 44 percent in 2016, CIRCLE projected. And voters in that age group preferred President-elect Joe Biden by a 25-point margin over President Donald Trump—61 percent to 36 percent—the organization found after analyzing data from the Associated Press.
That means the youth vote could have been the difference-maker in some key states, including Georgia, where efforts to encourage high school students to vote have been building for years.
“If we want to help sustain youth engagement, then we really have to start thinking about preparing students before they reach 18,” said Abby Kiesa, CIRCLE’s deputy director. “And we have to start before the last three months before the election.”
Educators in Georgia credit years of incorporating lessons about civic engagement into all areas of the curriculum, including classes like science, where students learn how decisions from state and federal lawmakers can affect issues like the environment.
In Atlanta, students as young as elementary school read books about voting in language arts classes, Lewis said. And this year, the district engaged students in a massive voter participation drive in cooperation with When We All Vote, a nonpartisan organization founded by former first lady Michelle Obama.
The “Good Trouble Voter Campaign,” named for Congressman Lewis’s motto, enlisted students and staff to help hundreds of students and their family members register to vote. While the district’s schools are in remote learning mode because of the coronavirus pandemic, some volunteers even visited peers’ homes to help them fill out forms and navigate the state’s personal ID requirements from a safe distance. They also volunteered as poll workers.
Students throughout the state participated in similar voter registration campaigns. And, as they gear up for Jan. 5 Senate runoff elections, young volunteers are trying to register newly eligible students who turn 18 between the presidential and special elections.
In those runoffs, Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler will face Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. If both Democrats win, each party would have 50 Senate seats, allowing Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to break the tie and grant control of the chamber to the Democrats.
At a recently held graduation ceremony, which had been delayed because of virus precautions, Atlanta students hung posters with a QR code that linked to a website with voter registration information.
In the suburbs, Pham and other volunteers plan to continue outreach campaigns, strategically messaging young would-be voters through social media apps and doing remote classroom visits until the Dec. 5 registration deadline.
Pham, 16, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, said her interest was nurtured as a child by watching her father vote. She wants more students “who look like me,” meaning students of color, to participate.
“With all eyes on Georgia and everybody paying a lot of attention to it, we are going to keep going,” she said. “We are going to keep doing the work and really push the voter registration message to as many people as possible.”
Ava Nieman, a junior at a private school north of Atlanta, said hearing from classmates made voting seem more accessible to teens.
“I definitely feel like it’s more relatable to a high school student,” she said. “It can be intimidating.”
In a state that proved that “every vote counts,” candidates will likely work hard to court even the youngest voters. Some teen supporters have already launched TikTok accounts to support their favorites in the coming runoffs, sharing short videos to make their case in Generation Z-friendly ways.
Georgia High School Democrats plan to work with other state chapters of the organization on their election efforts, said Vice Chair Sadie MacIntyre, a 16-year-old from Gwinnett County.
The organization’s young voter efforts before the general election included outdoor registration booths and social media campaigns. But many teens grew interested much earlier, when they learned about specific issues of concern to them, she said.
When demonstrations over racial justice sprung up around the country, the group launched an effort to explain a stalled state hate crimes law to their peers. MacIntyre remembers seeing a protester carrying a sign with a link to the group’s online campaign.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. We did that. My organization did that,’ ” she said.
Julian Fortuna, a Decatur high school senior who serves as the organization’s treasurer, voted in October, three days after his 18th birthday.
“When you get a sense of your voice and the impact it can have, I think it sticks with people,” he said, recalling his emotions as he watched results come in. “The margin is so close. Everyone who stepped up made a difference.”
Such memorable experiences can set young voters on a lifelong path of civic engagement, said Kiesa, of CIRCLE. But they don’t have to be tied to a big moment in a presidential race. Students’ interest may be sparked by a meaningful classroom conversation about a specific policy issue, by hearing from a guest speaker, or by volunteering on a local campaign.
In Atlanta, learning about voting has driven students’ interest in other forms of engagement, too, said Lewis, the Atlanta social studies coordinator.
Since the district’s voter campaign started, students have started advocating for changes in local transportation issues, forming affinity and advocacy groups with their peers, and volunteering on campaigns.
“Voting isn’t just about picking a winner or a loser or a specific candidate,” Lewis said. “We’ve really tried to empower our students with the understanding that voting is about advocating for yourselves. Voting is just one vehicle for that.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2020 edition of Education Week as As Election 2020 Grinds On, Young Voters Stay Hooked